A Travellerspoint blog

July 2010

Srinagar to Leh

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After some consideration, we settled on making the 450 km trip from Srinagar to Leh in two ten hour days in a crammed “shared” jeep. After commandeering the front two seats for ourselves (three in the front) we set our on the twisty curvy road over a pass of 3529m (11578 ft) to our overnight spot of Kargil.
View of the road crawling out of the Kashmir Valley
Meghan gets her passport Checked at on one of the numerous checkpoints
Tall snow banks on the road to Kargil

After an evening of second hand clothing shopping and searching for a vegetarian meal in a meat loving Muslim town we embarked for the second leg of the journey the next morning. This leg we found ourselves traversing high arid hills, surrounded by snowcapped jagged peaks as we pressed further and further into the Buddhist ex-kingdom of Ladakh. Ladakh is a high altitude desert with an average of 300 days of sunshine a year and precipitation levels nearing that of the Sahara! Today, the high point was over Fortu La at 4147 m (13605 ft) before descending into the Indus River Valley and the capital of Ladakh, Leh.

We left behind the green of Kashmir for the arid hills of Ladakh
The Road climbing to the mountain pass
Green irrigated pastures hugged closely to small villages lining the Indus River

Ladakh is home to one of the last undisturbed Tantric Buddhist societies on earth, with a culture and people more related to Tibet then India, this area is truly a distinctive corner of India. We arrived in time for the much visited Tse-Chu festival celebrated at the Hemis Gompa (Monastery), an hour bus journey from Leh. This festival celebrates the birthday of Padmasambhava, an important Buddhist teacher of the 8th century who was elevated to that of the “Second Buddha” The main attraction was the masked dances performed by the monks.

Dancers making their way out of the temple, surrounded by merrymakers.

Gives you an idea of how many people turned out.
Children taking in the view from above
Traditionally dressed Ladakhi women

The next few days we would find our selves just relishing the quite streets, friendly and kind people of Leh. Although not short on tourism (the main center of Leh is home to a quiet large Tourist Zone area) the laid back feeling of the mountain people makes it feel not so oppressive and the noise level on the streets is in stark comparison to anywhere else we know in India!

Yes, this is the view from our room

We arranged a jeep tour with 4 other people (Kasha whom we stayed with in Srinagar, Julia from France, Marc from the UK and Juno from S.Korea) and headed out on a trip to the Nubra Valley. Our first day took us over the mountain pass of Khardung La at 5602m (18,380 feet!) and touted as “World’s Highest Motorable Pass”. Again, like world highest lake in Nepal, there is some question to this validity. Never the less, 5602m is really high and the views and lack of oxygen was something else!
The Nubra Valley crew sucking wind at the top of the pass
Tri colored Stupas infront of “stupadly” good looking couloirs
We saw Pashmina goats on the way down the pass… The tuft of hair under the chin is the source of the super soft Pashmina wool
Switching up the snow covered pass

Nubra Valley stretches north to the Pakistan border and is home to the Siachen glacier where a notable battle took place between India and Pakistan and today is still heavily disputed. I read that India spends about 1 million dollars a day to station soldiers in the Nubra valley and that more have died from winter exposure or falling in glacier crevasses then in combat. The toll on the environment and limited water supply is a whole other story. As for tourism, foreigners must obtain special permits and are restricted to visit only a few villages. After descending from the pass we spent the night in the village of Hunder at the west end of the Ladahki sand dunes. Two humped camels, descendents from the era of the silk route, attract tourists (mainly domestic) for a quick jaunt around the dunes. Buddhism is fully evident everywhere and prayer flags , mani walls, and white washed Gompas (Buddhist Temples) decorate the hills side.
Sand dunes in an afternoon dust storm
Mani wall and white washed stupas, Hunder
One of the thousands of engraved stones making up the Mani Wall.

My humps, my humps, my lovely little lumps
Am I a baby two humper or an ostrich?!

Peter set off on an afternoon hike with Juno that climbed up above Hunder. Here many old ruins were found including tow temples and a decaying fort.
Stone staircase leading up to one of the hillside temples.
Statues of Buddha found in the small and unoccupied temple
Hilltop fort

Panoramic view of the Nubra Valley

In our next stop in the village of Diskit is the 17th century Diskit Gompa The monastery is home to 140 monks and some 16 or so novice monks. The buildings surrounding the gompa appear to just rest on an out cropping of rock and is built in traditional Tibetan style.
Diskit Gompa, just holding on
Walking up the many steps around the gompa
Young monk looking over Diskit
The prayer hall in which the monks will sit and chant mantras.
Pretty common scene, these large prayer wheels were found through out most villages

In Sumur, we visited the Samstemling Gompa, where we found much hustle and bustle in preparing for the Dalai Lama’s visit on the 21th of July. Young monks were busily painting window sills and banisters, while women from the village were sewing brightly colored flags. Elders walked around in jubilance monitoring the progress. The road leading up to the monastery was being upgraded, and in traditional Ladaki culture both women and men come out to help. Young children would either sleep or play near by while their mothers worked side by side with the men. We are told that the Dalai Lama last visited in 2003, and would be making the journey over the 5602m pass in a helicopter!
Notice baby sleeping in foreground
View of Nubra valley from the gompa in Sumur
Valley View as we made our way back over the pass
View of Leh from Khardung La

After our trip to the Nubra valley we returned to the Dorje Guest house were we plan to spend at least another two weeks exploring Leh and Ladakh.

View From Dorje Guesthouse

Posted by pmunson 22:41 Archived in India Comments (0)

Thanks Bro!

Exploring Ladakh by Motorcycle and Maruti

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Thanks to the Boarder Roads Association, BRO, and the Indian military, Kashmir and Ladakh are accessible by a large network of roads. Sharing disputed borders with both Pakistan and China, India carefully maintains access to her furthest reaches. Due to the rugged landscape this is no easy task and the roads are continuously under construction. New roads like a ribbon of black ink in the desert will abruptly turn into a tail bone crushing jeep road at any moment. Never the less, roads in any condition stretch out in all directions following river valleys, crossing massive mountain passes, and making their way up into tiny villages still holding on to traditional customs. BRO is proud of its work and every few kilometers there is another sign likethe one above boasting their success, encouraging safety, or making curios statements. Some of our favorites are: “If Married, Divorce Speed”, “Respect All, Suspect All”, “Better to be a Mr. Late than a Late Mr. Never”, “After Whiskey Driving Risky”, and “Don’t Be Silly in the Hilly”.

After Whishkey Driveing is Rishkey? Apparently whoever painted this sign was testing the theory.

We decided to take advantage of BRO’s good work and rented a Royal Enfield motorcycle. We set out for three days exploring the many Buddhist Gompas in the villages of Ladakh. Originally we planed on making a big trip out if it by staying overnight along the way but after hearing many stories of broken down motorcycles we decided to play it safe and make three different day trips out of our base in Leh. We hooked up with Marc, who was with us on our trip to the Nubra Valley, as he also was planning on renting a bike and having a travel companion with a 2nd bike was an added comfort incase of a breakdown. This decision turned out to be the right one by the end of the third day.

Vroom Vroom…

Numerous hilltop Gompas are found in and above traditional villages all over the Buddhist ex-Kingdom of Ladakh. Each is usually supported by an active monastery and monks maintain the temples and grounds. The villagers hold on by making the most out of a short but prosperous growing season that sustains them through the long and cold winters when the roads close isolating them from the rest of the world. Havens of greenery surround the villages standing out against the barren mountainous landscape were irrigation has allowed growth in this mountain desert. The Ladakhi people are masters of self sustained living in this environment and much of the tourism you see in Leh is based around ecological awareness.

Some sights from our motorcycle adventure:
Fort above Naropa Royal Palace, Shey, Ladakh
White Washed Stupas in front of Thiksey Gompa
Photo of the Dalai Lama and offerings inside the Thiksey Gompa. We missed seeing His Holiness by 1 day in Dharmsala and only by a few days in Ladakh. We also learned from an unverified source that he is the worlds 2nd most recognizable man behind Obama.
Buddha Statue in Thiksey Gompa
Coming across a narrow bridge covered in prayer flags with Stakna Gompa in the background
Open Road

Two and half hours west of Leh is Alchi, this otherwise unimpressive village is home to the Chhoskhor Temple Complex. This complex is home to fresco wall murals dating back to the 11th century when Buddhism made its way over the Himalaya from Kashmir. The “Great Translator” Lotsava Ringchen Zangpo is credited with the creation of 108 temples throughout the Himalaya and aiding the spread of Buddhism from southern India into Ladakh and Tibet. Today, only a few of these temples survive. Located up a side valley and tucked away in the village, the temple complex is almost hidden in contrast to the other rock and cliff hugging monasteries of the area. This may have allowed these temples to remain intact. The walls of the temples are covered from floor to roof in incredible intricate paintings. Very little conservation work has been completed and is evident in the cracks and water damage of the walls. Hopefully in the near future more will be done to protect this “living museum”.

Photographs where not permitted in the temples, therefore the following pictures where taken from the Alchi: The living heritage of Ladakh, a photo book we purchased.
This is Ahyama Tara the most adored goddess of Alchi. Each of her six hands are in different gestures and she is holding a blue lotus and book.
There was three of these 17 feet high stucco statues all covered in fresco paintings. This is Avalokiteshvara, the god of compassion. The lower garment is filled with miniature scenes of gods, goddesses, palaces, priests ect. It is impossible to capture the magnitude and detail of the work.
This is diety is known as Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara or also as Ekadashamukha Avalokiteshvara and is one of the most popular deities. The eleven pairs of arms hold different objects and she wears an embroidered long shawl and rosary.

Marc picks up a hitchhiker! This women found us at a fork in the road to Likir Gompa, after us asking for directions she asked us for a ride. After Meghan and I egged Marc on, she hoped on.

Light at the end of the tunnel. Making our way up to the Likir Gompa we found these old prayer wheals at the end of a dark passageway
Giant Sitting Buddha statue at Likir Gompa
Likir Gompa
Marc, Myself, and the Enfields

On the third day we took a trip up to the small village of Chilling. We did this mostly for the excellent ride up the Zanskar river valley on a narrow and twisty road. The views were amazing and the village turned out to be really nice as well. There were no tourist facilities but we had heard that there were a few families who provided home stays. We were not staying the night but managed to find a woman who was working out in the fields and convinced her to make a delicious lunch for us. Fresh greens, dal, rice, ladakhi bread, and mint tea. Delicious!
Zanskar River Valley
Mark Enjoying the Curves. Another BRO road sign we liked was “go easy on my curves”. Not this time!
One of the few homes in Chilling
Our Host in Chilling

And as I eluded to earlier I did have a break down. On the way back from Chilling, just before the main road, I broke a spoke that derailed the chain and mangled the chain guard. Without tools I was helpless but the guy I rented the bike from came out without delay and fixed the bike up and even gave me a break on the price of the rent! How is that for service.
Fixing the Bike

After a couple of days rest in Leh we set out again for 4 days, this time by car. We hired a private car from mechanic. It was a Maruti, a compact Indian made car that is a favorite for its durability and reliability. You would not know by looking at it though. The vehicle resembled my old Ford Festiva! It was 13 years old and insured for 15,000 rupees or about $325! It served us well over all the bumpy roads even though at first I felt like all the wheels and doors would fall off before we finished the trip.

Me and the Mighty Maruti
Prayer beads hanging from rear view mirror

Our first stop would be 10km south of Leh and the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 75th birthday. There was speeches from local dignitaries, traditional dances chanting monks and tons of people. The people watching was most enjoyable.
A few people watching pictures

We arranged permits to visited the upper Indus river valley. Again, with its proximity to the “line of control” between India and Pakistan, we were limited in where we could visit. This area is again unique for India in that there are people of Aryan decent living in the villages. Called Brokpa or Dard people, there is some discussion in where they come from originally, some speculate decedents of Alexander the Great’s army. The people are certainly of fairer complexion and have different features, but what sets them apart is their tradition dress. As is common everywhere, one only sees the older generation and typically the women keeping up with the dress. Married women wear three braided dreadlocks on each side of their face with an additional group down the back. Both women and men wear flowers in their hair with pearl earrings (where do these come from?). The village of Dah, the farthest we could travel up the valley, is epicenter for the Dard people. The village sat above the road and we had to walk 10 minutes through terraced vegetable fields and apricot orchards to reach the village. Dah had two very simple guesthouses and an wonderfully peaceful ambiance.


Beautiful Indus River Valley

Under the grape vines, perfect place to relax and read. Dah, Ladakh
Our Guest house in Dha
Dard woman in traditional dress. We saw these women in the village but I found this picture on the internet

We spent the next day slowly retreating down the valley visiting small towns along the way. There is not much traffic and only one or two busses a day make the trip in either way so the main means of getting from place to place is hitchhiking. We picked up school children walking 3-5 km to school and another older gentleman along the way. The village of Laido where the old man was going, turned out to be a nice diversion. Behind a newly constructed Gompa a man and his wife where busy hand weaving wool clothe. We visited them for a bit and shared in a Ladahki butter tea (a tea tasting a bit like goat).
Hitchhiker, he was praying the entire time in the back seat, I wonder if he does this always or if it was because a gora (foreigner) was driving?!
Weaving the old fashion way Cheap entertainment. You see children rolling wheels from India, Thailand to Latin America!

This was a military check point up a side valley. We attempted to go north, but after 20 minutes, many official calls, and tea and biscuit’s, the military personnel informed us “not possible”. Oh well, we tried.

Picture of the mighty Indus. This river usually runs glacial blue!

We finished out the road trip by taking the road west toward Kargil and overnighted in the to of Lamayuru. We passed this place on our way to Leh and were looking forward to being able to slow down and enjoy the road. The switch backs up the side of the mountain didn’t disappoint.

Twisty and curvy and up and up….amazing
Lamaruyu gompa and village.

Morning incense burns in front of gompa
View from the Lamaruyu - Leh road

We returned to Leh for a final two nights before heading out on a micro bus on the morning of the 12th to take us to Manali, 450 or so kms south of Ladakh. What we knew was going to be a long and exhausting trip slowly dissolved into one arduous journey, but that is another blog entry in the Joy of Travel series!.

Tsemo Fort - Set high on an ridge above town this is the iconic image of Leh, viewable from almost anywhere in town.
Leh Palace above old town - On the same ridge as the fort this crumbling old building is also a Unesco World Heritage site
Mysterious pig head in Leh Palace

Tsemo Fort view form an adjacent rock outcropping. The prayer flags span a gap that must be over 100 yards
Meghan waits patiently with some monks as I snap more photos

Posted by pmunson 02:27 Archived in India Comments (1)

Joy of Travel part 4

The long ride to Nairobi

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I am writing from the comfortable Dubai airport at 3:00 in the morning. Forgive me if my thoughts run astray. A 4 hour delay on top of a 6 hour lay over bumped our flight to Nairobi back to 6:00 am and it has been a long night in the Airport. If we were not traveling on a shoestring we may have opted for the in airport hotel but the long rows of recliners in the terminal are good enough for us. Prolonged waits and long travel days have been the theme since we departed Leh so let me back up a little bit.

Meghan was able to finish the book “Super Freakonomics” on our trip to Nairobi

An 18 hour bus ride? You must be kidding me. Unless we wanted to throw down for an expensive airline ticket the only way out of Leh without backtracking is the long road to Manali. It is not an easy road either. Four mountain passes in the 14,000 to 16,000 foot range were spaced out on a long bumpy road that is only open a few months out of the year. This year the road had been plagued with repeated closures leaving people stranded for days in the few weeks since it first opened. We decided to be adventurous and with a bag full of food and water we boarded the 11 seat “tourist tempo”, or beefy mountain minivan that would carry us along the way. Our journey began just after midnight, just as the kickoff for the world cup finals was happening in South Africa. Meghan passed out pretty quick but I was up all night. We passed the first mountain pass just as the sun started lighting up the sky. Ahh, sunrise in the mountains… this is not so bad. The drive continued to hold my interest and the time passed relatively quickly.
The road disappears as we traverse high alpine plains

Seasonal parachute tent restaurants catered to the flow of traffic on the desolate Leh-Manali route

Making our way up the 2nd pass.

View from the road

Third Pass

First signs of trouble

At about the 15 hour mark we had crossed the 4th pass and were making our way down towards Manali. We came across a huge traffic backup and learned that a landslide that we thought had been cleared had started sliding again. Our driver weaved around as many trucks as he could on the narrow mountain road and got us close to the front of the line. Traffic was held up in both directions and the road was a total mess. I wish I could give the situation justice with my words, it was truly an India moment.

Trucks lined up above the landslide area

Back home the road would have been closed, traffic would have been turned around, and road workers and policemen would have been called in to repair the road and maintain order. Not the case in India. There was 2 cops and a guy with a bulldozer (a strange occurrence considering everywhere else we had been on the way in and out of Kashmir was covered by the military). A few trucks would gun it through the landslide area bouncing around in the deep mud hoping for some sort of purchase to get them to the other side. After a few trucks got through and ruined the track one would get stuck and this happened about every 5 vehicles. At this point about fifty guys would run out an push until the truck made it out and then a huge cheer would go out from the crowd. Next the bulldozer would come through and smooth out the mud essentially putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound and the process would start again. I watched this for over an hour and saw about 12 cars get through.
While all this was going on the mountain was actively sliding and rocks and mud were coming down from above. This was mostly from two sources, a muddy hillside were rock and mud slowly made its way down to the road and a craggy rock wall were huge boulders broke off and shot like missiles across the road. At the fist sign of any movement from above one of the two cops would start blowing his whistle, everyone would start screaming, and anyone that was in the slide zone would start running for safety. Keep in mind we are on a mountain pass and the road drops off steeply on one side for hundreds of feet. I had visions in my mind of a mass stampede sending the slow and the weak in attendance tumbling down the mountainside. After about 4 hours time, just as night was falling, a large truck became stuck beyond the help of the masses and the road, by default, was deemed “closed”. We were about 5 cars away from giving the danger zone a go and I don’t know if I was frustrated or relived at this point. I was at about 40 hours without sleep so the whole thing, like this evening in Dubai, is kind of dream like.
Our driver in a last ditch effort spared us the cold night in the jeep at 14,000 feet listening to a landslide! All we had to do was shoulder our packs and walk down the mountain. Did I mention it had started raining again? It really would not have been all that bad if we had not recently lost our good headlamp and the batteries in the only one we had were just about dead. Never the less we made it down the rocky mountain path that cut off a big chunk of switchbacks and only had to wait about an hour out in the rain for a 2nd “tourist tempo” to arrive. 24 hours after departing Leh we were glad to find a bed and were quick to sleep.

We knew that we were going to need some rest in Manali even before the landslide fiasco so we planed 4 days to just chill out. We had been recommended a lovely guest house that was a 10 minute walk alongside a mountain river through apple, apricot, and plum trees. The apricots and apples were in season and we could pluck and eat them along our walk.

River with guest house in the trees


Manali Guest house

Typical Indian Chai Stand, Manali

From Manali the Travel fun continued with a 10 hour overnight bus to the capital of Punjab, Chandigarh. Here we would spend the day exploring the town before hoping on an overnight train to Jaipur the following Night. Despite the lack of sleep we had fun exploring Nek Chands Fantasy rock garden. This was a massive 25 acre maze of rock and recycled building materials that felt part Aztec ruins, part mosaic nightmare.

We knew we would be safe on the bus after the driver lit an incense offering to his plastic dashboard diety!




Nek Chands Fantasy Rock Garden

Two Days rest in Jaipur and on to another overnight train that after 20 hours would finally bring us to Mumbai! We really enjoyed Mumbai and considering it was the monsoon felt like we got really lucky with the weather. We got a break in the rains to do a lot of exploring by foot and enjoyed an evening on the sea side walkway that leads to Chowpatty Beach. We also were able to witness the impressive rains of the monsoon season both inside and out.
Porters taking a break outside the Train station in Jaipur. It was fun to be back in Rajasthan for a few days.

Busy railway platform on the way to Mumbai

Don’t crap on the tracks… at least in the station please. The trail bathrooms were not more than a dressed up hole in the ground.

Mumbai from Seaside Boulevard

Meghan at Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai

Victoria Terminus Train Station, Mumbai.

Caught out in the monsoon

Mumbai traffic laws… No trucks, horse drawn carriages, or ox carts.

Our last Thali in India… we will miss the food.

Back in the Dubai airport our big layover only lasted an hour longer than expected and we were in the air for the 5 hour flight to Nairobi. Fortunately we had arranged a pickup at the airport knowing we would be tired and she was their waiting for us when we cleared customs. We pre booked a “room” at the Wilderbest Camp. This was an old estate on the outskirts of town that had a few rooms inside, luxury safari tents outside on the grounds, and traditional camping tents scattered around. We were in the later. Over the Next few days we will be making our plans for Africa and hope to be out on Safari before our next posting!

Hitting the Tarmac in Nairobi

Meghan and our campground host the tortoise.

Posted by pmunson 03:57 Archived in India Comments (4)

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